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“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me…” (Ps. 23).
Most of all I just give thanks, and in doing this I become more attuned to the blessings available to us in every moment. I certainly experience stress and despair, feelings of failure and inadequacy. I feel sadness in the face of persistent suffering, but these all happen in the context of a much deeper sense that before anything else I am a child of God.
A Hindu teacher named Eknath Easwaran taught me to meditate and encouraged me to memorize Psalm 23. Since then, I have repeated it silently thousands of times. It sums up my piety. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake” (Ps. 23).
When we really listen, God does bring us to a spiritual state that you could compare to a green pasture with still waters. God directs our lives, “along right pathways.” And then an extraordinary thing happens in this psalm. The God of the third person, “the Lord,” “the He” comes nearer and becomes… a “you.” In grammar we call it the second person. Listen to how in the presence of our suffering God comes even nearer. This experience lies at the heart of my faith.
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you [you] are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me…” (Ps. 23). I believe that this personal experience of God, especially as we gather in worship around this table, lies at the heart of abiding joy. Today I am going to talk about two teachers who were good shepherds bringing me to green pastures, and about an experience of God spreading a table in the presence of those who trouble me.
Two theology professors particularly influenced me. Richard R. Niebuhr (1925-2017) served as one of my three dissertation advisors. His father (H. Richard Niebuhr) and uncle (Reinhold Niebuhr) were two of the most famous twentieth century theologians. Gordon D. Kaufman (1925-2011) supervised my Master’s thesis. Although I have not often spoken to you explicitly about them they have deeply shaped my thought.
Professor Niebuhr taught me that above all we are symbol-generating creatures. We never make contact with anything as it is in itself. Every experience is filtered through stories and the symbols that support them. It is impossible to get to the unmediated bottom of reality in any sense.
For instance, as the philosopher Martin Heidegger points out we don’t just hear raw sounds and then figure out what they are. When we hear the bell of the cable car or the carillon, they already mean something to us. And this meaning depends on the stories we tell about life. A cathedral bell might be uplifting to a person of faith and oppressive to someone who has been persecuted by the church. We don’t experience the sound without that sort of interpretation.
Niebuhr believed deeply in the power of feeling which connects us to God and each other. He writes about our situation in modern times with communications technologies like the Internet constantly impinging on us and directing our inner life. Our identities are constantly being rearranged by the latest tragedy broadcasted to us through our cell phones. He asks, “is it not possible that [the modern person] is experiencing the terrible joy of being made and remade again by a ruling power that [she] knows but does not know [she] knows?”
He says, “human faith is not so much a sum of answers as it is a way of seeing and acting and books about faith have first of all to describe what faithful [people] see and believe is real.”
Although the two of them had the same advisor in graduate school together, Professor Kaufman could hardly have been more different that Niebuhr. While Niebuhr emphasized art and feeling, Kaufman worked to describe the place of faith in the world of science.
After writing an influential theology textbook Kaufman had a change of heart. He came to the deep conviction that theology is not about recovering a tradition or interpreting holy texts. Instead he emphasized that theology is what he calls “imaginative construction.” Human beings have responsibility for the symbols that they make for describing God.
Kaufman believed that human beings have a tremendously strong tendency to treat the wrong things as if they were God. Our idols may be personal like money, our appearance or being liked, or they may be our collective experience of the country or the economy. For him above all the symbol God helps us to commit ourselves to the right things.
On this Earth Day Kaufman would probably say that the symbol of God may be the only thing that could save nature, perhaps even the planet, from our worship of wealth, technology and power. The idea of God shows us that with our lives we worship the wrong things.
Most of all Kaufman had a heart for modern people who simply could not believe what a lot of churches say about God. He writes, “Faith in God has become impossible for many now, not so much because of stiffnecked sinfulness and rebellion against God as because talk about God… seems to have little to do with their actual lives. Unless… God can be seen once again to be the God of this world and our God, it is not possible… to have faith in him.”
Kaufman taught about the importance of resisting our tendencies toward tribalism. For the sake of the world, he believed that every one of us, every Christian in every generation, must constantly seek new ways to understand and talk about God.
This week has not been easy. We received a lot of angry letters from our Christian brothers and sisters. News reports led some to conclude that the Cathedral is worshiping the pop music star Beyoncé. Some friends who are closer feel like what we are doing is in bad taste and maybe worse. I need to give you some background and share what I have been telling people about this issue.
Every Wednesday night at 6:30 p.m. we offer a contemporary worship service called The Vine. Our 2018 Cathedral theme of “truth” inspired its leaders to create a three part sermon series called “Speaking Truth: The Power of Story.” On the last day of the series we wanted to especially raise up the voices of women of color so we invited Yolanda Norton to preach. You may remember Yolanda from her January sermon here. At San Francisco Theological Seminary she teaches a course called “Beyoncé and the Hebrew Bible.”
Leaders of our small thirty-person Vine community decided to offer a “Beyoncé Mass” to celebrate in a Christian context what they see as the singer’s message of empowerment for women of color. From my perspective it is not entirely unlike the spirit animating the Duke Ellington Sacred Music concert in 1965.
We have been surprised by how much attention this service has generated. Over a thousand people could conceivably come here for it on Wednesday night. On balance although a small number of our community think that it’s not a good idea, we have received an overwhelmingly positive response from faithful people who recognize that we need to reach out to the world.
We have also received letters that have made me even more aware of virulent racism and homophobia among our fellow Christians. Certainly not everyone who hates the service is a racist. I’m just been surprised by what I have heard.
My heart definitely goes out to Episcopalians who feel embarrassed by the service and I know we have made mistakes in how we have handled various aspects of it. At the same time over the last few days I have learned a lot from Beyoncé. It has been emotionally exhausting just being modestly connected to her for a week. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be her all the time.
Above all I’ve learned how important it is to connect. God’s spirit is moving through the world and I believe that not doing anything to reach out to the next generation of San Franciscans is a betrayal of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
So in short brothers and sisters this may not have been my most joyful week. It has not been as calm as those years of theological study with teachers I love. But you know what? My heart still rejoices. Whether we are in the green pastures beside still waters, or in the valley of the shadow of death, even when we are in the presence of those who trouble us – we shall not be in want. God revives our souls. Indeed we thank you God, that you, you are with us.
 Anselm, Proslogion.
 Martin Heidegger, Being and Time.
 Richard R. Niebuhr, Experiential Religion (NY: Harper and Row, 1972) 140.
 Gordon D. Kaufman, An Essay on Theological Method, 3rd Edition (Atlanta, GA: Scholar’s Press, 1995) 74.
The Voice Behind All Things
We have all heard a voice. It offers us guidance and direction, and sometimes even warns us. It is so ubiquitous that, when we know where we are going, it just fades quietly into the background and we cease to notice it at all.
We hear it in hospitals, subway systems and 250 airports around the world. It may be one of the most frequently heard voices in all history. Although you may have doubted whether this public address system voice belongs to a real person, it does.
Her name is Carolyn Hopkins. She lives in Northern Maine. She makes the recordings in her own house and emails them to the public address company. When asked about what makes people around the world prefer her voice she guesses that they might hear the smile behind it.
In the 1980’s Wim Wenders film Der Himmel Über Berlin (The Wings of Desire) invisible angels can hear the thoughts of people as they go past. In one scene the angel walks through a library hearing what is in every person’s heart.
In our heads we all carry voices that we recognize. Some of these may be disapproving voices that point out our failures and our limitations. They say things like “You can’t do this!” or, “they never loved you,” or, “you’re just like your father” or, “your brother was always better than you.”
Sometimes I think those voices of our thoughts become so dominant, so loud or constant, that we cannot really hear what is happening. This cathedral has different sounds. The woosh of the cable cars, the rain against the stained glass windows, the wind blowing over Nob Hill. One of the most beautiful sounds to me is that of preparation as people get ready for Yoga. A kind of spirit speaks to us in these moments that we often don’t recognize.
Eknath Easwaran started an ashram in Petaluma and was the one who taught me to meditate. He introduced me to the idea that if we can learn to lay our busy thoughts to the side, we might experience more moments of divinity, the holy.
He taught a form of passage meditation. I want to share one of my favorite passages with you tonight. It comes from St. Augustine’s autobiography Confessions.
“Imagine if all the tumult of the body were to quiet down, along with our busy thoughts about earth, sea and air; if the very world should stop, and the mind cease thinking about itself, go beyond itself, and be quite still; if all the fantasies that appear in dreams and imagination should cease, and there be no speech, no sign:”
“Imagine if all things that are perishable grew still – for if we listen they are saying, We did not make ourselves; he made us who abides forever – imagine, then, that they should say this and fall silent, listening to the very voice of him who made them and not to that of his creation;”
“So that we should hear not his word through the tongues of [people], nor the voice of angels, nor the cloud’s thunder, nor any symbol, but the very Self which in these things we love, and go beyond ourselves to attain a flash of that eternal wisdom which abides above all things.”
“And imagine if that moment were to go on and on, leaving behind all other sights and sounds but this one vision which ravishes and absorbs and fixes the beholder in joy; so that the rest of eternal life were like that moment of illumination which leaves us breathless:”
“Would this not be what is bidden in scripture, Enter thou into the joy of the Lord?”
When I am with you on Tuesday nights I hear this voice. When we are together I can hear the smile behind all creation.
Darren’s theme – The Earth as a Temple
 Translation of Augustine’s Confessions by Michael N. Nagler in Eknath Easwaran, God Makes the Rivers to Flow (Petaluma, CA: Nilgiri Press, 1991) 171.
Sermons from the last six months are listed below. Older sermons can be heard through iTunes podcast.
“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (Mk. 11)!
Dropping into the last impossibly steep ocean wave of the day, racing down the line, I stepped out of time and space. It felt as if the wind as much as the wave was holding me up, hurtling me above everything through catastrophe toward shore.
Later we ate sandwiches in the dryness and warmth of our car. On the way home he shared East African music with the refrain, “Mbele ya Mungu. Mbele ya Mungu. Mbele ya Mungu.”
These Kiswahili words mean “in front of God.” Indeed right then and in our best moments we feel how beautiful it is to walk before God. In this great cathedral with the light streaming through these magnificent windows, with the pillars that seem to anchor us to the heart of the earth and our choir which elevates us to heaven, we feel a hint of what it means to stand in front of God.
Mbele ya Mungu. We walk before God. We go where God goes. God is part of our real life, our thoughts, decisions and actions. We are never alone, never cut off from God’s love and mercy. At any moment we can turn to God. We can ask for direction and guidance.
When you find yourself in conflict, take a break from framing your next argument, or rehearsing your grievance, and in your heart ask God for help (homework?). Experience the miraculous in this way. Let God carry some of the weight as you seek reconciliation.
Even more frequently we have the chance to reach out to God in gratitude. We often get so lost in the busyness of our life that we miss the gifts that God constantly shares with us. Circumstances in his life and career made Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) realize this. He asked his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson if he could build a little house on his property just outside of town by Walden Pond. He lived there for two years spending his days listening to God. In his Journal Thoreau calls himself a “watchman” whose “profession is to be always on the alert to find God in nature…”
Yesterday Ellen called us to the cathedral to pray for the victims and survivors of gun violence. Then we joined a massive demonstration at City Hall. I was grateful to see so many friends here. The day brought back memories from a spring day just after our high school classes let out when we lost two boys. One was stabbed to death in our parking lot and the other went to prison for this crime. Even today when I go near that place I feel the weight of the tragedy so acutely. As I get older I think of what those boys might have done and been. I wonder how much their parents, sisters and brothers continue to suffer.
Increasing numbers of people have been drawn into tragedies like this. Since the Sandy Hook shooting in December 2012, 438 others have been shot in 200 school shootings (138 killed). We cannot even begin to imagine this suffering.
Jesus empties himself out to be part of this world. He subjects himself to the terrifying forces of cruel ignorance. He gives his life to set us on a more humane path, to draw us home to God. Jesus says, “blessed are the merciful… blessed are the meek… blessed are the peacemakers” (Mt. 5). He invites the most despised people of his society into his life and shares meals with them. His humility and love are so great. The Apostle Paul says, “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2). Because of Jesus, with him, we walk before God in an altogether different way. Mbele ya Mungu.
This week a cathedral trustee came to my office to give me feedback on my leadership. In keeping with the spirit of our year of truth she spoke candidly and our conversation was tremendously. At the end of our meeting she thanked me for my general attitude of joy. But, she said, we cannot always be happy. In her heart I think she was asking what do we make of life’s tragedies?
The Buddhists are right we suffer more because of our attachment to the world, because of the way we love. For me this is not a reason to love any less. Each of us will face terrible suffering, tragedies that we may not even be able imagine on a day like this. But with all my heart I believe that our pain is encompassed by the love and presence of Jesus.
At the beginning of this holy week I want to share a long excerpt from a poem by Leonard Cohen (1934-2016). On a radio broadcast he calls it, “a small prayer.” For me it is about Jesus, who walks and suffers with us every day and at the same time knows he is carried by God.
“In the eyes of men he falls, and in his own eyes too. He falls from his high place, he trips on his achievement. He falls to you, he falls to know you. It is sad, they say. See his disgrace, say the ones at his heel. But he falls radiantly toward the light…”
“They cannot see who lifts him as he falls, or how his falling changes, and he himself bewildered till his heart cries out to bless the one who holds him in his falling. And in his fall he hears his heart cry out, his heart explains why he is falling, why he had to fall, and he gives over to the fall.”
“Blessed are you, clasp of the falling. He falls into the sky, he falls into the light, none can hurt him as he falls. Blessed are you, shield of the falling. Wrapped in his fall, concealed within his fall, he finds the place, he is gathered in.”
“While his hair streams back and his clothes tear in the wind, he is held up, comforted, he enters into the place of his fall. Blessed are you, embrace of the falling, foundation of the light, master of the human accident.”
This morning at the Lord’s table as we go hurtling through catastrophe toward shore, step with me out of time and space. Let us pray for each other as we walk before God to the cross and beyond. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. Hosanna in the highest heaven. Mbele ya Mungu. Blessed are you shield of the falling.
 Malcolm Clemens Young, The Spiritual Journal of Henry David Thoreau (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2007) 23. Thoreau, Henry David Journal ed. John C. Broderick and Robert Sattelmeyer. Volume 4 (Princeton University Press, 1981-) 315, 55.
 Jugal K. Patel, “After Sandy Hook, More than 400 People Have Been Shot in Over 200 School Shootings,” The New York Times. 15 February 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/02/15/us/school-shootings-sandy-hook-parkland.html
“When the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that [Jesus] did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,’ they became angry and said to him, ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’ Jesus said to them. “Yes…” (Mt. 21).
Beneath and behind words, before and beyond sound, lies a language. This is the language of your body, your heart, your intuition. When you begin to really listen, you realize how vulnerable human beings are. We are so easily hurt. In a second, in a moment of inattention, in a wrong turn, or even with a single word, we can be damaged beyond repair.
So we build big things. We gather nations and armies. We assemble vast companies and computer networks. We construct one thousand foot towers like the Salesforce Tower which can be seen a hundred miles away from here. We build temples and great cathedrals like this one. These distract us from the brute fact that life is short, our hold on this world is tenuous.
This vulnerability is the reason for our social graces for the unspoken rules that govern how we interact with each other. We try to protect ourselves from this knowledge about our human weakness even if it simultaneously erects a barrier between us.
When Jesus enters the temple he breaks these social rules. He wants us to see who we really are and so he upsets things. Ordinary people come to the temple to make sacrifices. In order to pay for the animals, bankers are there to exchange money. Jesus physically overturns their tables. In this way he does not just speak to their minds but to their whole selves. So often we treat this story as if it were a parable about capitalism or greed.
According to this version of the story Jesus does not just heal the blind and the lame. In an amazing moment the children there see what he is really doing. They recognize who he really is and cry out “Hosanna to the Son of David” (Mt. 21)! This angers the adults, the ones who maintain the greatness of the temple, the ones perpetuating the illusion of invulnerability.
A wise theologian named Louis-Marie Chauvet writes, “To become a child… is to learn… to recognize others as like us in their very otherness; and simultaneously to consent to this radical otherness, outside of which there is no likeness.”
Tonight we celebrate the ministry of St. Dorothy’s Rest a retreat and camp that exists and continues entirely because of surprising moments when adults and children really listened to each other.
It is named after Dorothy Pitkin Lincoln who died of tuberculosis at the age of eight. Her mother’s deep love led her to care for many children. One day she brought a young boy who had lost his leg in an elevator accident to a parade for President McKinley. There she introduced him to Melvin C. Meeker who owned a resort called Camp Meeker near the Russian River. Meeker gave the land for St. Dorothy’s Rest and the Lincoln’s cared for thousands of children who came there to experience healing in the natural world.
This inspiring work continues every summer. This is a place where it is safe to be vulnerable. It is one corner of this great earth where spiritual healing is always happening.
Beneath and behind words, before and beyond sound, lies a language. This is the language of your body, your heart, your intuition. This week in your encounters with children, with each other, with complete strangers, I encourage you to listen in the way that the founders of St. Dorothy’s Rest did.
Open your hearts to receive God’s surprising grace. And may the love of Jesus reconcile us to our vulnerability and inspire us with new joy.
 Mitchell, Nathan D. Meeting Mystery (New York: Orbis Books, 2006) 62. Citing Louis-Marie Chauvet, Symbol and Sacrament: A Sacramental Reinterpretation of Christian Existence tr. Patrick Madigan and Madeleine Beaumont (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1995) 508.
 Mary Judith Robinson From Gold Rush to Millennium: 150 Years of the Episcopal Diocese of California 1849-2000 (SF: The Episcopal Diocese of California, 2001) 43-5.
The Rev. Dr. Susanna Singer’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.